In C. K. Williams’ “Grief,” the speaker explores the all too commonexperience of losing a loved one. The speaker describes the pain involved insitting helplessly by, only able to watch, while another human being slowlywithdraws into death. The poem “Grief,” like many of C.K. Williams’poems, is a maelstrom of memories, thoughts, emotions, and other humanexperiences.
In this particular poem, the speaker is torn by the slow death ofhis elderly mother. His attempts to console himself and his family leads him tobelieve that she has lived a full life, and is now released from her suffering,headed toward a place of serenity and repose. How does this phrase “peaceof the earth,” (32) suggest a release from the suffering of dying? In thepoem entitled “Grief,” by C.
K. Williams, the reader is taken throughone man’s painful experience of watching his mother’s slow death. Williams isrenowned for his ability to capture the emotions and concepts of the humanspirit. Perhaps The Boston Globe’s critic, Jonathan Aaron, put it best in hisreview, stating: A matchless explorer of the burdens of consciousness, C. K.Williams has always written brilliantly about human pain, that which we inflictupon others and upon ourselves, and that which we experience in dreading whatwe’re fated for.
Williams does not dispute that death is not a natural thing, infact it is something that we are all “fated for”, however he attemptsto illustrate the pain and human emotion that are associated with death. In thepoem “Grief,” Williams is also successful in demonstrating thetransition from the anguish experienced while a loved one withdraws into death,to the eventual rest the deceased enter. The phrase “peace of theearth” is suggestive of the body’s final resting place, in which the soulis liberated from the body in death, and the individual experiences a releasefrom suffering. Throughout the poem, the speaker attempts to identify andunderstand exactly what grief is. His mother’s suffering torments him, and whenshe finally comes to death she enters the peace of the earth. The word peacemeans a state of tranquillity of quiet. A state of such tranquillity and quiet,like that which is associated with death. When one is dead, it is believed thatthe body is laid to rest and the soul is freed to a state of tranquillity.
Theword peace also refers to a relief from disquieting or oppressive thoughts oremotions, and harmony in personal relations. These meanings can be applied intwo very differing situations. On the one hand, it is the deceased mother whocomes to experience peace through death, however, on the other hand the son tooundergoes a sense of peace or calming sense of mind after his mother’s sufferinghas ended. In this poem, Williams also focuses on the symbolism of life anddeath in association with the word earth. In reality, the word earth denotessoil. Yet In all practicality, this reference to the soil in which the dead areinterred has, however, a more symbolic meaning — the sphere of mortal life. Themind frame that Williams sets is one where the earth is a mortal world in whichphysical suffering exists and the body is unprotected against it. Eventually thebody gives way to death, and the final outcome of the “mortal earth”is a death that delivers us from suffering into peace.
Many religions identifyearth with the human body and its origin. The word earth also literally meansthe mortal human body, and in faiths such as the Christian tradition, man isbelieved to have been borne of ashes earth, and to ashes he will return. Thusis Williams’ argument that death’s inevitability has caused the grieving processto become such a normality that we are often unsure as to whether we evenexperience it. Other figurative language used in this poem that can be directlycorrelated to Williams’ depiction and identification of grief, is the phrase”countenance of loss” (32). These words are portray the demeanor ofhas suffered the loss of another, and undergone the grieving process. Thecountenance, or mental composure, is one of suffering and anguish which resultsfrom the loss of the loved one. Death’s natural occurrence is one that affectsus all.
Whether its influence is felt personally, or through the suffering ofothers, the greatest endurance against death’s melancholy is the cleansingprocess of grieving.BibliographyAaron, Jonathan, review of The Vigil, by C.K. Williams, The Boston Globe.Williams, C. K.
“Grief.” In The Vigil, 29-32. New York: The NoondayPress, 1998.